Belfast Boys: How Unionists and Nationalists Fought and Died Together in the First World War

October 29, 2009

Belfast's Loyalist murals depict many images of the First World War. The 36th Ulster Division, in which so many forebears of today's Ulster Loyalists fought and died, is a regular theme for these gable-end remembrances. Alongside the 36th was the 16th Division, which recruited Irishmen from Belfast, England and elsewhere. The 36th contained many members of the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF); the 16th included many of the pro-Home Rule Irish Volunteers. Yet, instead of fighting it out in a civil war on the streets of Belfast, the UVF and the Volunteers fought together at the Somme. While the 36th is heavily remembered, the 16th merits no equivalent memorialising among Nationalists. The 36th Division, with its strong associations with Protestant Belfast, is the chosen symbol of the Unionists' war-time sacrifices. The 16th reminded Nationalists of their service for Britain and her Empire, and, when British troops were in Northern Ireland, they had no desire to commemorate the fact.

Richard Grayson's book seeks to challenge the effect that contemporary communal cleavage has had upon the history of west Belfast, and, in particular, upon the military history of its citizens. He provides a new form of social-military history: from the neighbourhood to the front; from the battalion to the individual; from the officer to the common soldier. The result is a "military history from the street". His main sources are local newspapers that contain detail on individual soldiers not found in official military records. He also uses pension and service records, and church registers. Grayson's micro-historical approach offers a striking picture of nearly 8,500 men (around two thirds of those from Belfast who served), of whom nearly 2,000 died.

This painstaking study shows how Protestants and Catholics enlisted to fight, often alongside each other. While Grayson is careful to point out the problems that occur in the sources - for example, that Nationalist newspapers were far less likely to record information about "their soldiers" than the Unionist press - he is also able to show that recruitment by denomination did not run far out of kilter with the size of the relevant populations. Contrary to popular mythologies, Catholic recruitment was roughly in line with their 35 per cent share of the west Belfast population.

For Grayson, enlistment to the armies fighting on the Western Front shows that present-day sectarian divisions are different from those of the 1910s. Back then, many Nationalists were relaxed about membership of the British Empire, while Unionists of the same vintage did not call themselves Loyalist (although they professed loyalty). However, men raised in sectarian traditions also joined armies for prosaic reasons: adventurousness and economic hardship played their parts.

As the war progressed and ended, the differences of Belfast's two traditions re-emerged. Each side held out for divergent outcomes in exchange for their sacrifices: freedom for Ireland versus maintenance of the Union. What came next - Civil War, partition and the trajectory of the Northern Ireland state - offers the most powerful reason why one side of Belfast remembered this story and the other preferred to forget it. However, in Northern Ireland now, Nationalist interest in their forebears' First World War service is growing. This book provides an invaluable service to both sides in their bid to evaluate individual and shared histories.

Belfast Boys: How Unionists and Nationalists Fought and Died Together in the First World War

By Richard S. Grayson. Continuum Books, 2pp, £25.00. ISBN 9781847250087. Published August 2009

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